Water price on the table

International experience has shown that higher water tariffs lead to more responsible usage. It’s one of the suggestions to come out of a debate on undoing South Africa’s huge wastage of the precious – and scarce – natural resource.

Gauteng wasted as much as 417-million kilolitres of water in the 2011/2012 financial year – translating into about R7.8-billion – Gauteng MEC for local government and housing, Ntombi Mekgwe, said earlier this month.

Experts have now said tariffs need to be increased across South Africa to make people consume water more responsibly and, in effect, prevent a shortage. This was the solution offered at the World Wide Fund for Nature South Africa (WWF-SA) and SAfm Decisive Debate titled “We are not paying enough for water”, held at the Atrium Building in Auckland Park, Johannesburg on Friday, 24 May.

The debate, moderated by SAfm presenter Xolani Gwala, centred on whether or not South Africans were paying too little for water.

Helgard Muller, the acting deputy director-general of policy and regulation in the national Department of Water Affairs, opened the debate by rephrasing the event’s question. He asked if there were enough funds allocated to water works and if they were being used efficiently and effectively. “We need around R67-billion a year. We currently only have R30-billion.”

Efficiently used funds would reduce the budget needed. He added that his department did not collect all tariffs. As a result, it was sitting with a R2-billion deficit. “If we can use the money in the system – and money that is supposed to be in the system – more efficiently the [tariff] increases would not be very dramatic.”

Muller’s department is revising its pricing strategy. He said once it was gazetted, it would be open for public comment around August this year.

Higher tariffs will change water behaviour

The Water Research Commission’s chief executive, Dhesigen Naidoo, believed South Africa’s future water supply looked dismal. He said the country’s water shortage could pose the greatest risk to the economy, adding that South Africans would demand one-and-a-half times more water 15 years from now.

Naidoo’s solution is to manage the population’s water behaviour. One way of achieving this is by increasing water prices. “We found around the world that one of the most effective mechanisms to do this is by tariffing.” Singapore and Australia were examples where price increases led to more responsible water usage.

South Africa’s Gini co-efficient, he said, had favoured those who could afford to pay for water but had hurt the poor, who paid too much for the resource. “In order to deal with this perverse Gini co-efficient, we need to reorganise the tariffing structure so that those people who cannot afford water can have access to it.”

Benchmarking large industry was another solution to saving, proposed Naidoo. He said if organisations were wasteful or putting polluted water back into the system, they should pay more.

Mines and industry are source of the problem

Judith Taylor of the South African Water Caucus said water polluters had been escaping prosecution because the laws protecting the environment had not been enforced. “[Mines] are allowed to pollute our water resources including our wetlands, which they are destroying.”

The heart of the problem lay in the low rates mines and industry were charged, she added, suggesting that tariffs should be structured in such a way as to force high water users to pay more.

According to Robyn Stein, a director at law firm Edward Nathan Sonnenbergs and an environmental attorney for 23 years, the National Water Act obliges consumers to pay more for greater usage. She agreed with Taylor, saying industry and mining paid very low rates for water despite their excessive use. “Historically, and still to this day, they enjoy financial assistance of very low rates for the use of water.”

Motsepe Matlala, the president of the National African Farmers Union of South Africa, called for the Department of Water Affairs to implement plans to recover costs from the mining and industry sectors.

Address water losses, not prices

Activist Dora Ndaba said high water losses in municipalities should be addressed before the government rush to increase tariffs. She estimated 40% of water was lost during delivery to consumers. “Water research reports state that on average one-third of water is lost in the country in the municipalities, either through leaks or through people not paying for water.”

The establishment of an independent regulator for water would go a long way in protecting the resource, said Ndaba. An alternative to solving water issues, she suggested, was to train young plumbers at further education and training colleges around the country.

Address imbalances of the past first

Matlala said past imbalances had to be tended to before water prices could be increased. He insisted gender, racial and class issues still existed and needed to be corrected. “Unless we address issues of equity then we cannot pay [for water] adequately. Black farmers must be assisted in acquiring access to water. The poor is looking at the government to deliver.”

Audience member Richard Holden, a business analyst from Trans-Caledon Tunnel Authority, a company which implements water infrastructure, thought the R1.77 his household paid per day for water was unrealistically low and should be increased. “If I was paying the true amount for water then we could extend our services to rural areas.”

  • This article was originally published on 27 May in Media Club South Africa.com.
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